As the classic business example goes, railroads lost their prime position because they confused running a railroad with moving goods and people. If they had defined their existence by meeting the task (transportation) rather than by their familiar paradigm for accomplishing it (railroads), who knows how those companies might look today? Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Airways, anyone?
The publishing industry is in the midst of a similar crisis, especially book publishing. Recently, Clive Thompson published an interesting piece in Wired entitled, “The Future of Reading.” In it, he cites examples showing how books can break loose of their traditional moorings and become interactive experiences. Reading can move from a bound, printed format into an exchange of ideas around a narrative backbone, something more discursive and dynamic than static printed words.
Joe Wikert has also recently wondered aloud, “When Will We Evolve Past Books?” He puts forth the very salient point that “Freakonomics” could have been a 40-page e-book and sold quite well. In fact, it could have been (still could be?) a series of smaller monographs, selling for much more in aggregate than the single book we currently know.
Despite changes in technology (including Google’s recent moves in this space), we have a distance to go. I’ve recently read many exchanges on blogs that show me how deeply invested authors are in having a finished good, a printed and bound book to hold and covet. My own experience with my novel in printed form is that there is a pleasant finality with a completed, bound (and bounded) print book. You can breathe a sigh of relief that it’s done and truly exists.
But perhaps Joe and Clive and others are missing the bigger picture. We are already beyond the book, with Facebook, blogs, Twitter, audio, and video providing outlets for short-form expression, serialized creativity, and commercial craft. Perhaps the book is already just one option of many. Maybe you, reading this, are already part of the future of reading.
So the question is, Will publishers be a part of this? Or will they railroad themselves into a smaller role in the future of reading?